PROTECTED by a heavy guard of armed soldiers, an official commission of inquiry visited the scene of last month's mosque massacre yesterday, to see where Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein mowed down at least 30 praying Palestinians.
Little evidence of that carnage met their eyes, two weeks after the event. But as the five members of the commission entered the complex, they walked past an uncoiled fire hose, used to wash the victims' blood from the floor.
Led by Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, the team was escorted by top military adviser Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom around the Cave of the Patriarchs, the building that houses both a mosque and a synagogue, where Abraham is said to be buried.
General Yatom was the first to give evidence when the commission opened hearings in Jerusalem Tuesday. He admitted ``a series of errors and negligence'' on the part of soldiers and policemen detailed to guard the mosque, and said five guards were not at their posts that morning.
``The security system would have been effective if it had been applied according to orders,'' Yatom told the hearing. ``I think it could have prevented Goldstein from acting the way he did.''
Commission members questioned him sharply, especially Ahmed al-Rahman Zuabi, an Arab judge at the Nazareth District Court, who repeatedly asked why Jewish worshipers were allowed to bring their weapons into the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Other members of the commission, besides Chief Justice Shamgar, are former chief of the general staff Gen. Moshe Levy, Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, and president of the Open University, Menahem Yaari.
This is the 11th commission of its type to be established in Israeli history. Notable predecessors include the commission set up to investigate a 1968 case of arson at Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the Agranat Commission, which looked into the reasons for Israel's unpreparedness for the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and the Kahan Commission that reported on Israel's role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut in 1982.
Although the commission of inquiry now sitting formally has only the power to make recommendations, ``it is a powerful locomotive,'' says Zeev Segal, a law lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
``Because the standing of the commission is very high, the weight given to its recommendations is very high,'' he says. ``These commissions can create a new public political arena.''
THE Kahan commission, he recalls, forced the resignation of former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Apparently fearing political repercussions of a high level investigation, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was reportedly not keen to ask for the appointment of a commission of inquiry into the Hebron massacre. A majority of Cabinet members, however, convinced him it was necessary.
Also unenthusiastic about the commission, for different reasons, are most Palestinians.
``This inquiry is nonsense'' scoffed Mohammed Mohtaseb yesterday, standing outside his home beside the mosque as the commissioners made their tour. ``We have a proverb that says `when the enemy is the judge, to whom shall you complain?' We want an international commission.''
Palestinian witnesses of the massacre are due to be called to testify next week, after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is unclear how many of them will cooperate with the investigation, however, given the general air of mistrust.
``According to our experience with Israelis ... we are not having any trust in them,'' says Aziz Amr, a Hebron lawyer.
Local residents are said to be cooperating with two parallel inquiries into the massacre, one initiated by the Palestine Liberation Organization and being carried out by an 11-member team of Hebron notables, the other being conducted by the Waqf, the Islamic religious institution responsible for holy sites.
Although the government has asked the official commission to report only on the facts and circumstances of the massacre, ``there is no doubt that the commission interprets its terms of reference very widely and will probe into anything it finds fit,'' Dr. Segal says.
But Lawyer Jawad Boulos, who defends Palestinian security prisoners, worries the commission ``will only deal with the symptoms, not with the real problem,'' which he believes is the settlers' presence in Palestinian areas such as Hebron.
The commission, whose public hearings are being broadcast live on Israeli radio in both Hebrew and Arabic, is expected to continue to take testimony for at least another 10 days before starting to write its report.